NASA grants $279M to six private satcom providers, including $70M for SpaceX

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NASA is deepening its relationship with the commercial space industry, announcing $278.5 million in funding for six American satellite communications providers — though it expects the companies to make some investments of their own as well.

The agency’s Communications Services Project (CSP) will help the private companies develop their near-Earth communications services that could potentially be used for future NASA missions. NASA intends to phase out its own network of communications satellites as it turns its focus to deep space exploration, so the commercial partnerships would fill the void in service.

The companies selected for the CSP program are as follows, listed with the funding granted by NASA to each:

  • Inmarsat Government Inc.: $28.6 million.

  • Kuiper Government Solutions (KGS) LLC: $67 million.

  • SES Government Solutions: $28.96 million.

  • Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX): $69.95 million.

  • Telesat U.S. Services LLC: $30.65 million.

  • Viasat Incorporated: $53.3 million.

This is just the first phase of these grants; NASA also expects each of the companies to "match or exceed its contributions … totaling more than $1.5 billion of cost-share investment” over the five-year duration of the program.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” said Eli Naffah, CSP project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, in a press release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation, and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

It’s an approach NASA has used before. The agency provided funding to commercial space companies to develop cargo and crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Both programs have proven successful, with NASA ultimately contracting SpaceX and Orbital ATK to provide cargo transportation and SpaceX and Boeing to provide crew transportation.

Of course the entire industry of satellite communications is changing, as noted by the fact that SpaceX took the largest share of the grant here, with Amazon's Kuiper nipping at its heels. But its focus on consumer internet, while practical for a large-scale business, doesn't always meet the requirements of NASA projects, so as expected a variety of legacy and developing providers are getting cash too.